Mardi Gras dates back thousands of years to ancient Rome and pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. When the Roman Catholic Church rose to power, Church leaders were looking for ways to make it easier for pagans to adopt the faith. Rather than the winter and spring festivals, they encouraged a carnival on the day before Lent, which starts 46 days before Easter.
The practice migrated to other countries with large Catholic populations at the time like France, Germany, Spain and England. Traditionally, people would binge eat and drink, scarfing down all the meat, eggs, milk and cheese in their home, the History Channel describes. The gorging was celebratory, since fish and fasting were close to the only things on the menu until Easter. The practice came to be called Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” in France.
The first Mardi Gras in the U.S. was in 1699. On March 2 of that year, a French Canadian explorer with a mouthful of a name, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville, landed on the coast of present-day Louisiana. The spot is about 60 miles south of where New Orleans would eventually be founded, and Bienville named the place “Pointe du Mardi Gras,” because of the impending holiday. The crew celebrated, though it was likely a quieter celebration than today.
In 1702, Bienville founded another town, Fort Louis de la Louisiane. The small settlement celebrated the first official Mardi Gras in what is now the United States in 1703. Fort Louis de la Louisiane eventually turned into Mobile, Alabama, and served as the first capital of the original Colony of French Louisiana. The city of New Orleans, for comparison, wasn’t even established until 1718, 15 years after the first Mobile Mardi Gras.
It’s not all cheer and good will, though. Alabama’s history—all of its history—is wrapped up in the celebration. As recently as last year, there were two parades: one predominantly white, one predominantly black. A photo essay by Damon Winter published in The New York Times in 2017 contrasts the two parades side by side. The predominantly black parade skips the waterfront district and trails through the Fisher neighborhood instead. Meanwhile, a secret society called the Mistresses of Joe Cain holds a predominantly white parade on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday to honor a Confederate soldier who they say reinvigorated Mardi Gras celebrations after the Civil War.
A documentary called The Order of Myths explores the division in detail. Today, all people are welcome to participate in the downtown celebration, Charles Dean writes for AL.com. Yet, decisions about who gets to ride on floats and who are crowned the kings and queens are dictated by longevity in organizations, so two parades are still held.
Mobile isn’t alone in this regard, of course. New Orleans has its fair share of racial tensions surrounding Mardi Gras, and has for years. Floats are usually all white or all black, and the Krewe of Zulu traditionally wear blackface during the parade. A long history can lead to a complicated present with anachronistic practices and vestigial customs.